Poetics Today 21.2 (2000) 449-452
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Pacificism and Literature
Luc Rasson, Ecrire contre la guerre: Littérature et pacifismes (1916–1928). Paris: L’Harmattan, 1997. 186 pp.
Writing against War: the title of Luc Rasson’s book on a number of novelists who have addressed the First World War sums up a justly received opinion. Is not war a major scandal? And this one, the Great War, in particular, pushed the dehumanization of the combatant to its limits: in it the old metaphor of “cannon fodder” became an exact description. Now it is difficult to imagine that literature, after so many centuries spent in celebrating human activity, is adopting, in respect to the First World War, an opposing standpoint and is beginning to give the performers in their trenches the chance to view and represent themselves in human terms.
Writing against (the Great) war is, in short, a matter of doing the decent thing. Rasson’s book provides confirmation of this truism throughout its studies of World War I–era writers, both well known (Henri Barbusse, Georges Duhamel, Erich Maria Remarque, etc.) and less well known (Gabriel Chevalier). Each chapter, about fifteen pages long, combines literary commentary with the biographical and ideological setting; and in each chapter a singular figure breaks through, and a new facet of pacifist disquiet. There, indeed, lies the stimulating value of this book: if it reinforces our feeling that literature is qualified to rise up against barbarity, it also shows how complicated, even fragile, this insurrection becomes when it takes the form of a novel.
But could it be otherwise? If pacifism were simple, it would have no need [End Page 449] of a novel to express itself (or else it would become shapeless and take that most unbearable novel form of all: the roman à thèse). For the novel—as most scholars now understand, I would think, given Mikhail Bakhtin’s studies and Milan Kundera’s reflections—is a dialogic form, eminently receptive to the contradictory rustle of discourses, to the inextricable crisscross of points of view. And though Rasson never conceals his liking for the authors under study, making much of, and relying on, what they have said, he also knows that the main point perhaps lurks elsewhere and that the wisdom of novels is not necessarily subservient to the ideas of those who have written them. Hence, for those authors who fight “in the cause of peace” and who constitute “engaging figures of the well-meaning individual,” a cruel irony lies in store: every time “the trial of the transposition into fiction tends to sabotage their ideological project. . . . In the passage from the project to the text, something is lost” (Rasson 1997: 176). Logical flaws, breaches of coherence, details that grate, incongruities, contradictions: these are just some of the zones of ideological resistance that alert and intrigue the critic.
Thanks to the tireless sagacity of Rasson, the examples offered are as numerous as they are diverse. Here are two of them, to give you an idea (though one could quote the whole book). Le feu by Barbusse, Goncourt Prize winner of 1916, “has always been accepted as a relentless confrontation with the world of war” (35). Nonetheless, this novel of the “immediate designation of horror” is also a “mannered” novel (43). Because Barbusse is its author, the joys of writing abound, and intertextual allusions proliferate: “Where, then, is the boundary between aesthetic compliance and critical design?” (43). A short apologue in La peur (1930) by Gabriel Chevalier affords a cavalier and seemingly definitive answer: Before the war André Charlet was a brilliant poet, but when the narrative introduces him he is in a military hospital, in charge of emptying the basins into which the wounded relieve themselves—an inglorious activity that earns him the nickname Caca. When someone asks him if he still writes, he holds out a reeking basin and sneers: “Here’s poetry for you!” (84). To be sure, “there is no art of war” (84). At most one can attempt to strip the latter of its prestige, indirectly, by...